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Light through the darkness: Lessons from a 9/11 survivor

Port Authority Officer Will Jimeno, who was trapped in the World Trade Center rubble, shares what he has learned from his recovery post-9/11

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Jimeno reads from “Immigrant, American, Survivor,” a children’s book he wrote that draws on his experience.

AP Photo/Richard Drew

“A lot of good came out of September 11, 2001,” says Will Jimeno.

That may sound strange coming from someone who was trapped and seriously injured under the rubble of 220 stories of the World Trade Center and surrounding buildings. But Jimeno is emphatic. “You want to know the best thing to come out of that day? September 12. People were in the streets helping one another. We united the world and there was an outpouring of love for the United State of America. We were patriotic again! We loved one another.”

Will Jimeno was one of many Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) officers deployed after the towers were struck that morning. He and his sergeant, John McLoughlin, were the only two of that contingent to survive the collapse.

“After they found me I was in Bellevue Hospital for a long time, one of the busiest hospitals in New York—full of gunshot and stabbing victims and so on—under normal conditions. For two whole weeks, not a single person shot or stabbed or beaten was admitted to that hospital. The aftermath of 9/11 was an outpouring of love. We were all in it together.”

In Jimeno’s view, we are always in it together, we just need to wake up to it. “There is so much more love than hatred in this world. Before I was a police officer I served in the U.S. Navy and I traveled all over the world. It doesn’t matter your skin color or religion or anything. Everyone wants the same thing: happiness. And everyone, including first responders, deserves that.”

Lessons Learned

Live With Your Darkness: “I spoke to several therapists but the first few didn’t work out for me. Finally, my third therapist told me, ‘Will, you’re going to have to live with this.’ That struck me. I’m not going let the terrorists, those cowards, affect my family. I’m not going to do that to my children.

“The point is, everybody has darkness in their lives. Everybody. You have to learn to live with that in order to come into the light.”

You Deserve to Be Happy: Jimeno was miserable after suffering his ordeal on 9/11. Anger, he said, was his primary expression of this misery. One vivid night before his recovery, Jimeno recalls losing his temper over a lost remote control. The moment was an epiphany and began his journey of self-discovery. “That night I got in my truck and drove out of town, to the country. When I got home I asked my daughter, ‘Does daddy yell a lot?’ She said, ‘Yeah. You scare me.’ I knew then I needed to get help.”

That’s not to say anger and resentment—manifestations of what Jimeno calls his darkness—are entirely absent from his life. “My leg doesn’t work because it was crushed,” he says. “Sometimes I’m resentful about that. But then I remember: I’m lucky to be alive! If you’ve lost a partner, live for them. Live your best life inspired by those people.”

Not every day is perfect, but every day is precious. “You need to find love for yourself. That’s first. Then, when you’re no longer suffering, you can spread that love to your family and beyond.”

You Are Not Alone: “Will Jimeno is no different from you,” he says. “I have moments when I’m happy and moments when I’m not. I have off days.” Every first responder needs to recognize that struggling with stress is common; feelings come and go. This is universal.

“On September 11, I rushed to that scene thinking I was going to save the world. We ran in there to do that—but you can’t do anything alone. In the aftermath of the towers falling, I felt so small. We all need to remember that to solve problems, to defeat terrorists, we need to work together. It took my wife, my kids, my community for me to get better.”

Listen Without Judgment: According to Jimeno, listening is the single most important tool for helping ourselves and others process trauma and find peace. “I give talks all over and one thing I’ve learned is to shut my mouth,” he says. “When someone is telling me about their trauma, I can’t interject. I just listen. It lets people feel trusted. It lets them know they’re not alone. I’m only smart enough to shut up.”

Don’t Compare Traumas: “I don’t know the pain of childbirth,” says Jimeno. “So I don’t compare myself to that.” Likewise, he says, tragedies aren’t competitive. “Maybe somebody is dealing with sexual abuse or drug or alcohol abuse. In those difficult moments, it’s everything. It’s no different from my experience in the World Trade Center—in that moment.”

Jimeno identifies COVID-19 and social media as factors exacerbating daily stress. “Everybody has to deal with it, and it’s the most important thing in the world to that person who is suffering.”

Life Is short: “One day I’m going to be gone,” says Jimeno. “That’s what inspired me to write a book and to speak on these topics. Maybe it’s the cop in me; I want to help people while I’m here.” By accepting we have finite time to live—as 9/11 poignantly reminds us—our own lives become more precious and, thereby, more meaningful.

“There are 365 days in a year,” says Jimeno. Each one of them is a blessing, and is to be treated as such, he says.

Channeling His Experience

Driven by his passion to see the best for people who are suffering, Jimeno, along with Dr. Michael Moats, recently released a book to share his lessons. The book explores the topics outlined above, but with much greater depth and insight.

The power to improve society resides within each of us. As Jimeno says, when we realize our commonalities and common cause, we can begin this essential work. But first, we must find peace within ourselves.

This article was originally published on the Lexipol blog Sept. 11, 2021. It has been updated.

Crawford Coates is the content marketing manager for Lexipol. Prior to this role, he was publisher at Calibre Press, a publisher and trainer for law enforcement, and an editor at PennWell Public Safety. He is a co-founder of Below 100 and author of the book “Mindful Responder: The First Responder’s Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness--On & Off the Job.”